NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Buffeted by an ever-increasing storm of discontent, and outrage in some quarters, over his comments at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott reversed course Dec. 20 and announced he would not seek to hold on to the Senate’s majority post when Congress reconvenes in January.
“He lost the trust of his fellow senators and many other Americans,” said Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land. Lott’s Dec. 5 tip of the hat to Thurmond and his 1948 segregationist presidential platform fatally compromised his ability to lead, in Land’s view.
Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist appears to be the odds-on favorite for the majority leader’s post when Senate Republicans gather in a special caucus Jan. 6. Lott, in his statement, indicated he would retain his Senate seat.
President Bush, in a Dec. 20 statement, said, “I respect the very difficult decision Trent made on behalf of the American people. As majority and minority leader of the Senate, Trent Lott improved education for the American people; he led the way in securing tax relief; he strengthened our national security; and he stood for a bold and effective foreign policy. Trent is a valued friend, and a man I respect. I am pleased he will continue to serve our nation in the Senate, and I look forward to working with him on our agenda to make America safer, stronger and better.”
Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Lott’s comments regarding Thurmond’s Dixiecrat candidacy years ago, which “appear to indicate his belief that segregationist policies would have been superior to advances made over the last 50 years,” revealed “a horrific blind spot to the significance of the civil rights revolution.”
“To the best of my knowledge Trent Lott is not a bigot,” Land said, “but he apparently has a blind spot that obscures the horror that was segregation and the gross deprivation it visited upon African Americans.
“Sen. Lott is to be commended for doing what is best for the country,” Land continued. “It would not have been possible to have the kind of discussion we need to have in this country and to move forward in the areas of racial reconciliation and racial justice with Sen. Lott in a position of national leadership.”
The national brouhaha had its inception in remarks made by Lott during a birthday celebration for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lott said he was proud his state [Mississippi] voted for Thurmond when he ran for president in 1948. “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years either,” Lott said.
“Whatever the reality is concerning Sen. Lott, the fact is that he jeopardized his role as a leader,” Land said. “The perception will remain that he is at best insensitive on these issues and at worst prejudiced. He has done what is the best thing for the country in effectively resigning his position as majority leader.” The Associated Press reported Lott is the first Senate leader ever to resign over a controversy.
“I can’t imagine a more damaging statement a political leader could make in the year 2002 than the statement Trent Lott made,” Land said Dec. 14 during his Saturday afternoon radio program, “Richard Land Live!” “While I have met Sen. Lott on multiple occasions and never seen any indication he is a racist, his statement in context is a very serious one,” he continued.
“When he says ‘all these problems,’ it is hard not to imagine he is talking about the civil rights revolution, perhaps the most important U.S. social phenomenon of the 20th century,” Land said.
Lott voiced numerous apologies in the days following his comments. In one of his attempts to put the issue behind him, Lott indicated his disdain for the “discarded policies of the past.” Yet Land noted on his national call-in radio program that they weren’t just discarded policies; they were evil and immoral policies. “I don’t think he can redeem the thought that America would have been better off had it embraced Dixiecrat segregation,” he said.
Strom Thurmond’s reason for running for president was to stop the civil rights revolution in its tracks, Land explained, quoting from the State’s Rights Democratic party’s official 1948 election sample ballot in Mississippi: “A vote for Truman electors is a direct order to our Congressmen and Senators from Mississippi to vote for passage of Truman’s so-called civil rights program in the next congress. This means the vicious … anti-poll tax, anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever.”
Thurmond was running specifically to stop the passage of the laws that would have done away with the poll tax, a way of keeping poor blacks from voting, and blocked passage of federal anti-lynching laws and more, Land told his radio audience.
Lott’s decision won’t necessarily quell the firestorm over Republicans and the race issue. CNSNews.com reported Dec. 20 that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House Minority Leader, said Democrats would continue to brand Republicans as racists.
Pelosi’s perspective on Lott was clearly reflected in comments she made Dec. 10 after Lott first apologized for his gaffe: “I understand that Sen. Lott has made an apology. He can apologize all he wants. It doesn’t remove the sentiment that escaped his mouth…. I don’t know if any apology is adequate.”
Thurmond’s successor, Lindsey Graham, a Southern Baptist layman, in a statement Dec. 20, said Lott “has chosen the path of reconciliation, putting the common good ahead of self-interest. Hopefully, this will allow us to move forward in a constructive manner.
“I have always believed Sen. Lott’s comments were an effort to flatter Sen. Thurmond at his 100th birthday party and were never meant to embrace the repudiated policies of the past,” Graham said, noting, “One of the unfortunate aspects of this episode has been the political effort to try and freeze Sen. Thurmond in time. This effort fails to acknowledge the many contributions he made to South Carolinians of all backgrounds for nearly 50 years.
“I hope Sen. Lott’s apologies are viewed as sincere and I believe it was appropriate for him to apologize to those offended,” Graham said. “I have known Sen. Lott for several years and have found him to be a fine man. I very much regret all the damage that has been done to him and his family.
“The Republican Senate needs to rise to the occasion to prove that our compassionate conservative policies are good for all Americans,” Graham said. “At the same time, it is vitally important the Senate maintain its independence as a body. We are here to serve the nation, not just our respective political parties.”